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After the success of Get Tech Smart, Flo Nicolas is bringing Granite Staters Get Resource Smart, a show dedicated to shining a spotlight on organizations offering often-overlooked resources to the residents of New Hampshire. In the inaugural episode, Flo welcomes Bob McLaughlin from the National Collaborative for Digital Equity, a non-profit that works to make technology more accessible to low-income students and families.
One of the things we noticed when we were remote during the pandemic was a serious division when it comes to digital equity. Let’s dive into that. Why is your organization critical for students having accessibility to things like laptops and broadband internet?
Before the pandemic affected us all, I would often get, “Digital what? Digital equity? What’s that? What’s digital divide?” If you were on the wrong side of it you know exactly what it was, but if you weren’t it was relatively invisible. What the pandemic did is make the digital divide very visible. There were schools where kids didn’t have affordable broadband at home or a device at home, and they weren’t learning at all. So the pandemic really made that starkly apparent.
That said, we have two frameworks that guide our work as a nonprofit: one is digital, systemic digital equity, and the other is systemic inclusion. The systemic digital equity is basically the notion that it ain’t so simple – don’t just think in terms of cheap boxes and wires because there’s tech support, multilingual tech support, there’s the librarian support, there’s access to quality digital content, whether it’s fee-based, or free. There’s a variety of things. And so what we did during the pandemic in Manchester was mobilize with Manchester Proud in the school district, in the community college, and with a network of banks, credit unions, foundations, and corporate giving programs – we said let’s go hammer at getting all kids on the right side of the digital divide.
Together we were able to pony up the resources to buy 500 laptops for kids that didn’t have them. The district had arranged bus routes where they were providing free and reduced lunches, so I had a distribution system we could leverage, and the district was a really wonderful partnership. But you still had the linguistic barriers that made it very challenging, so there’s a kind of cultural and linguistic aspect to digital equity.
Why weren’t some people taking advantage of the free access to these laptops? Was it because they weren’t aware that they were available? Or was it because they didn’t understand what was going on? I know some people get worried like, oh, do I have to pay for this? What if something happens to the laptop? What do you think was the cause?
The district very wisely undertook what they call a root cause analysis process, which is basically let’s unpack that and try to figure out just the question you had — what’s up with that, why this is counterintuitive. You offer the device, and we would even get the flyers out in Spanish and other frequently encountered languages other than English, and even that wasn’t quite getting to it.
What we found is that new Americans — immigrant and refugee families — were really hard to reach, and oftentimes communications would come from the school, and there might be unfamiliarity with the school system because they’ve grown up in a Sudanese refugee camp where there wasn’t a frame of reference for engaging with the school system. But language was the biggest barrier, and one of the things we learned was that the district really needed to have ownership by linguistically and culturally diverse community leaders.
They need to be at the table with the district to be designing together. Don’t disseminate at, disseminate with. And let them tell you what are some of the barriers to focus on. We have families in freefall, so it was really a matter of changing the relationship between those that you most wanted to reach so that they had voice and agency.
Let’s say there’s somebody attending one of the New Hampshire colleges and they need access to a computer for remote classes, which have become exceedingly popular. Are they able to contact your organization to get a computer? How does that work?
Yes and no and yes. Folks that are low income are eligible for a free computer, that’s the first yes. The no is because we don’t have a big supply of laptops ourselves. But the second yes, this is the good news, we can get bank credit under the Community Reinvestment Act, and foundations and others can say, we would like to finance 50 laptops for low income learners. For example, there’s a bank that wants to donate them for linguistically diverse adults through the International Institute for New England, which works with new American families who would love a device.
I want to bring in that your organization doesn’t just focus on digital literacy, you also mentioned financial literacy. Let’s talk about that a little bit, because that’s also something very important where we do see some kind of divide with low income families in terms of getting financial resources.
A frame that I think you’ll resonate with a lot is that, despite a wealth of resources right next to somebody in poverty, they are incredibly siloed. I might know about affordable housing, but I might not know about a pathway to a living wage job. And I might not know about the whole family approach to jobs, which covers my public benefits while I’m getting trained, so that I can actually afford to earn more of an income, that otherwise would make my kids ineligible for subsidized childcare.
Part of the challenge of poverty is not only knowing a particular kind of resource is there, but being able to create a coherent map of those. This is why I love 211 so much, it’s like oh, you need a voucher for an Uber to go to a job interview that will pay you enough? It’s a game-changer. That could change a family’s quality of life.
What other support do you offer beyond just laptops? Is there more support? How can people find you?
So on our website, www.DigitalEquity.us, under the vision tab there’s Systemic Digital Equity, and it lays out about a paragraph each of different dimensions that talk about some of these – sort of starting with the obvious of affordable access to broadband. We had Comcast with Internet Essentials, which is “all you can eat” broadband for $10, and the Bean Foundation said they’d cover that. And then we were hearing some families saying, because of Comcast Internet Essentials policy, if you have a past due TV bill we can’t let you get access to the Internet Essentials program.
And so the Bean Foundation said they’d cover that too. So all those digital divide barriers were done away with, but getting the word out in a way that folks believed and connected with it remained a challenge. So there’s affordable access to broadband and devices and tech support. One of the things we did related to your question is, in terms of additional capacity building, we look at this as not a temporary fix, but how do we try to change the whole situation structurally.
So with support from banks, credit unions, the founding committee and Hampshire Charitable Foundation and other partners, we developed a tech support training program for linguistically diverse kids, where they got academic credit and did it as an after school program. And these kids were leading the charge. It’s community engagement, kids are getting great skills, they’re feeling a sense of pride. And we also secured the funding for the donation of refurbished laptops that kids got to use during the course and they got to keep them as an incentive for finishing.
Well, I love everything that you’re doing with digital equity and financial literacy. I can’t wait to get connected with the people at 211 because that seems like something a lot of people in this community and other communities across New Hampshire would appreciate to know more information about.
Flo Nicolas is an attorney, co-founder and COO of DEI Directive, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion technology firm that provides a comprehensive DEI Intelligence Platform. She also produces Get Tech Smart and Get Resource Smart, which she shares with partners in The Granite State News Collaborative.